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ALIENS IN AMERICA!

 

ALIENS IN AMERICA!

j. SNODGRASS

March 2017

AMERICAN PIE

There’s an old joke about a space-alien who beamed down into a seedy motel and demanded that a couple there show him how Earthlings reproduce. The couple protested at first, but finally agreed to do what they were there to do anyway, and when they were done the woman said “and that’s how we make babies.” The alien looked puzzled: “So? Where is it?” “Oh, now it takes another nine months to gestate.” “Nine months?” the alien asked, “So why was he in such a hurry?”

We’re hearing a lot right now about the dangers of “Aliens” in America, but North America has already seen plenty of “Alien Invasions.” But before we get to space-creatures and refugees, it makes a certain sense to begin with an immigrant who’s done so well here that most of us think of it as a native and couldn’t image America without it. I’m not saying “it” because I consider immigrants inhuman, but because the immigrant I’m talking about is the apple. Our modern apple was originally a native of Kazakhstan, an on-again-off-again section of Russia, and from there it spread by traders on the old Silk Road through Asia and Europe, where it swapped pollen with some native trees, sowing its wild…apples… The Chinese learned to select desirable traits by grafting trees together, and traded this knowledge to the Romans, who cultivated twenty-three types of apple on plantations throughout Europe.

The apple got a bad reputation because of the whole “Garden of Eden” thing, but actually the Bible never names the forbidden fruit. It does clearly say that Adam and Eve were standing under a fig-tree when the crime went down, and it’s only Christian logic that deduced the anonymous fruit under the fig-tree must have been an apple (the misunderstanding comes from Latin, “Malus,” apple, resembling “Malum,” bad, giving us the phrase “bad apple”). Which doesn’t mean apples didn’t have certain pagan associations – in English legend, King Arthur’s magic sword Excalibur comes from Avalon, literally “the island of apple trees.”

The English brought their grafted apple trees to America, but ran into a problem – the immigrant trees, like the immigrant settlers, did not do well on this new soil. The apple-tree, like the English colonist, would have to adapt to this new world, go a little bit wild and native, becoming something distinctly American. We’ve all heard the story of Johnny Appleseed, wandering around planting apple nurseries (from seeds – it sounds like a great coincidence, but actually “Appleseed” was not his last name). But we can forget that when you eat an apple, you can’t grow that same tree from one of the seeds inside – actually the five seeds in an apple will grow five different trees, and the odds of any of them producing fruit like the apple you ate are astronomically small. There’s an expression, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” but actually, every seed in every apple will grow a different tree, diversity is the apple’s reproductive strategy. So why was Johnny Appleseed canoeing around young America planting random trees totally unlikely to produce edible fruit? Because early Americans didn’t eat apples – they drank them, in the form of alcoholic cider and applejack whiskey (remember, the only way to keep apple-juice from turning to alcohol is refrigeration, which was still a hundred years away). Michael Pollan writes that we’ve mythologized Johnny Appleseed as an American Saint Francis, but really he was closer to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus.

Although the apple is immigrant, there is also something distinctly American about it: European and Asian trees could not grow here, offspring of lofty aristocrat breeds withered and disappeared, but random nameless seeds could mingle in these American soils and climates, persevering, experimenting, and one day, maybe a generation or two down the line – Jackpot! Spawning a tree of apples that could be picked and eaten – some of these random-chance winners are the celebrities of the fruit world: MacIntosh, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, and they’ve since been grafted and cloned all over the country (and in some cases, clones have been exported to grow in Europe and Asia as well). This humble immigrant, working hard, adapting, succeeding and spawning massive franchises is so American that we use the apple as a standard of patriotic comparison, saying something is “American as Apple Pie.”

But now I should really shut up about the apple being an immigrant – I’m afraid Donald Christ is going to uproot the trees, deport the orchards back to Kazakhstan, where they’ll immediately be executed for acting too Westernized. “You were once proud bitter Russian, now you are sweet, round American.” “No please – I’m still red! Don’t shoot!”

SPACEMEN?

Can you imagine if aliens came to Earth now and said “Take me to your leader”? “No, your English is not so good – what you meant to say was ‘Me take your leader.’ Go on – take him. Please!” How embarrassing for our species. If they came I’d be tempted to say “Um, I’m a chimpanzee, I voted for Bobo. Not my president.” (It’s all you hear today when you walk past the zoo, all those animals in their different languages chirping and roaring “Not My President” over and over). Full of immigrants, the zoo, all the super-stars, the Lions, Elephants, Zebras, Hippos, Apes, all African and mostly Muslim. They come to America as refugees and immediately find themselves in concentration camps. “Um hey – I was a certified nurse in my herd of Zebras, do my credits transfer here? You don’t speak zebra? Alright um, could you send someone who does? I’ll just be waiting…in this cage.”

I never have been much interested in space-aliens. I believe that other forms of life exist on other planets because there’s an infinity-to-one chance they do, and a one-to-infinity chance they don’t. But our whole idea of aliens coming down and inspiring the Egyptians, Mayans and Babylonians sounds to me like a flimsy excuse to blame someone else for the great fascist Empires in history. But I still enjoy alien movies – when I was a child I loved Star Wars. Then it was time to grow up and admit that Star Trek is cooler.

Our cultural entertainment representations of alien life teach us interesting things about ourselves. We generally expect aliens to be basically human in shape because it’s cheaper for special-effects, and we can’t imagine that anything else could represent a fully-formed intelligent being – we even use the word “spaceman,” as if any extraterrestrial life must still be essentially human (the most common exception is when we see aliens in insect-form, representing the next in line to inherit the earth – exo-skeletal telepathic insectoid aliens are the most frightening to us). But even in insect form, your average space-alien stands upright, between five and seven feet tall. If there is life on other planets, who’s to say it’s not microscopic to us? Or that we and the Earth wouldn’t be microscopic to it? And why would it come looking for us? We imagine aliens on a cultural and technological trajectory parallel to ours, maybe ahead or behind us but on the same basic path – why? And if there is life on a billion other planets, was it also created by our American God and did white Jesus die for its sins?

Were ancient Egypt, Babylon and Mexico visited by high-tech aliens? I don’t know or care. But I do know the American continent was visited by high-tech alien zombies called Columbus and Cortez and John Winthrop and William Bradford. They arrived from a dying Old World in fantastical ships with futuristic weapons and microscopic alien germs that decimated the Native population. A swarm of zombie-Christians, controlled by insectoid queens like Isabella and Elizabeth, “You will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” I read recently that Native Americans suffer from “post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It’s what comes from being corralled in third-world nations called Reservations. Naturally it’s our nightmare that the same thing will happen to us, whether from the Middle East or from Mars.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants, created a fictional immigrant icon. They gave him a name hearkening back to Nietzsche‘s ideal man, the worldly hero who would rescue humanity from otherworldly Christianity and its lust for destruction. This concept and character had the German name of Ubermensch, loosely translated into English as Superman. A refugee whose parents sent him in a tiny ship from a dying planet (recalling the old Hebrew story of Moses in the basket). And arriving on Earth he performed two incredible feats: one, he saved the world a zillion times as a flamboyant flying superhero. But his other spectacular act was even more impressive: he put on a shirt and tie, got a job and paid his taxes as the bland, forgettable American citizen Clark Kent, the perfect legal alien.

This was the great immigrant story – he didn’t come to change America into his homeland, even though he had great powers and some people wanted him to be a god, he did not use his abilities to undermine or destroy or replace truth, justice and the American way. He became an icon of truth, justice and the American way. Yes, he also became a sort of fashion-icon, and sometimes children will tie a bed-sheet around their necks and jump off the furniture (dangerous!). But even after eighty years of Superman you don’t see that many people on the sidewalk wearing their underwear outside of their pants. Superman is so American that we can forget he’s a space-alien – and a secretly Jewish alien! He remains a testament to the Jewish immigrant’s dream: to not get harassed and killed, and if that works out, get a steady job and help people when you can.

Superman is a fictional character (although most of us know more about Superman than we do about the person living next door, even if we’ve never opened a comic book). There are countless other immigrants and refugees who have lived a similar story, including the alien in my life, my Mom. With her parents, she crawled under a barbed-wire fence to escape from Soviet Hungary in 1956, at the age of eleven, and passed through Ellis Island into America. She quickly learned the English language, went to school and college and seminary, married a soldier and then a minister (and later, a former Intelligence Agent). She spent most of her career as a social-worker, assisting displaced home-makers to enter the workforce, and her four adult children are two lawyers (one of them a veteran), a minister, and a college teacher. Now she is a grandmother – I married the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, my sister married a man from India, and our combined five children are strong and adorable as only mixed-race kids can be.

My mother is not a terrorist (except insofar as all mothers are terrorists to their young). And neither she nor any of her offspring has ever spent one day on welfare – we have not been a burden on the system or the taxpayer. We work hard like immigrants do. And we pay taxes so that obese diabetic inbred hicks can sit around cashing welfare checks, watching reality TV, swilling Mountain Dew, talking trash about mongrel races, and voting for fascists. And when I hear about refugees from Syria, Somalia and Mexico, I think, that’s my mother, she wants to work hard and raise children in America, tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, soldiers and social-workers. And to be the parents of a new crop of beautiful mixed-race babies.

BACK TO THE APPLE

Fascist captain of automotive industry Henry Ford wanted America to be a melting pot – being a steel-man he imagined a forge in which metals melt, “impurities” burn away and steel is homogenized. But America is more like a stew of international spices, a genetic jambalaya. And we humans aren’t the only ones doing it. We don’t necessarily think of trees as sexual beings but they are, and apple-trees are particularly sleazy and promiscuous, you could even say…seedy (terrible role-models for our children, terrible). A commune of apple-trees, which, by the way, is a nudist colony for half of each year, they’re not just standing around with their balls and blossoms hanging out, they’re actually having apple-sex. What we politely call an “orchard” is really an orgy. At the risk of saying something crude, and really it’s not inappropriate because it’s a biological fact: an apple is a tree’s testicle. You wish you hadn’t heard it, but you know it’s true.

Prohibition laws targeted apple orchards, wild ghettos of sexual abandon, known to produce sour spitters good for nothing but the distillery. Orchards were targeted for their use in producing alcohol, but the result was also the neutering of the American apple. In the last hundred years, American apple-growers have forbidden promiscuity and (gasp) mixed marriage of the natural apple, insisting instead on cloning a few sweet breeds, the famous MacIntosh, Delicious, Granny Smith, etc. This is why you can buy the same six apples anywhere in America, but it’s very hard to find any of the untold thousands of other varieties. Most of today’s American apple-trees are direct clones cut from six or seven original trees (which were, themselves, once mutants).

Unfortunately our squeamish insistence that all American apples be good Christians, virgin-born and consubstantial (yes it’s a word – look it up) has created some unforeseen side-effects. Today, America’s apples are as inbred as Trump voters (a majority of American apples actually voted Republican. Because they don’t know that they’re children of immigrants. And now he’s gutting the EPA, which is the only medicare trees get, they’re starting to use words like “im-peared,” and “im-peach” – that’s apple humor, nobody thinks it’s funny but they don’t give a fig). Genocidal purges of apple diversity and massive cloning of a few types are causing the American apple-tree to become more vulnerable to evolving fungus and bacteria, insects and viruses – modern American apples require more pesticide than any other commercially grown food. An apple a day used to keep the doctor away…now it will give you cancer.

The fate of the apple is uncertain. Our experiment in weeding out apple diversity to promote genetic uniformity bears an eery similarity to Ireland’s reliance on a single breed of potato in the early 1800s. If we refuse to allow the apple to enact its own survival strategy of reproductive freedom, we may well see an apple-famine in our lifetime. And if we deny the mixing, merging, melding of human immigrants that has made America successful, we will summon a genetic and intellectual and cultural famine – inbred Americans are far more susceptible to parasites called “Republicans,” and highly contagious viruses like ignorance and bigotry.

What makes America strong and healthy is the same thing that brings strength and health in the plant world: diversity. We nevr were meant to be a stagnant indoor pool, but a flowing river fed by many streams. If America ever was great, it was because of reckless and exuberant experimentation. And that is the only way we can “make America great again.” Some of us might want to support diversity because it’s philosophically “right” or because it’s “nice” or “friendly” – that’s fine, I’m proud of that, but I’m just too selfish to do it. I support diversity for selfish reasons – because it’s viable, because it’s healthy, because it works. I support diversity because it’s good for my children, I want them to benefit from the best of every culture, every genetic strength and immunity, every flavor of food and art and literature and philosophy. Diversity isn’t just “nice” and “good,” it’s also an essential part of our survival, like putting different colors on your dinner-plate. If history and biology teach us anything, we thrive from diversity and wither without it. Also – eat an apple every now and then.

SOURCES

Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire

And a bunch of other stuff.

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IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

IN (what) GOD (do) WE TRUST (?)

Almost two hundred years after America’s revolutionary war against the British Empire, there was an independence movement by another English colony (which, ironically, had also once belonged to Indians). But as India looked at its options, with a keen eye on the success of its elder cousin America, one of the freedom-movement leaders urged caution. Muhatma Gandhi warned: “That you cannot serve God and [wealth] is an economic truth of the highest value. We have to make our choice. Western nations today are groaning under the heel of the monster-god of materialism… I have heard many of our countrymen say that we will gain American wealth but avoid its methods. I venture to suggest that such an attempt if it were made is foredoomed to failure.”

Gandhi – he’s so cute. Close your eyes, see his face – he’s adorable, like a muppet. But it turns out India didn’t just love him for his looks. He also thought things and said things and wrote things. I guess when I was young I thought he won independence by flashing that endearing smile. That’s not just because I wasn’t paying attention in school. It turns out his face is welcome in our culture but his voice is not. He was dangerous. Even in this little fragment. He starts by quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Though Gandhi was a Hindu and not a Christian, he really admired Jesus the non-violent protestor against Roman impirial domination. But Gandhi does not say that Jesus is the god of America – instead, he refers to a “monster-god of materialism.” As if we all worship some capitalist Cookie-Monster. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa there, Geronimo, a Hindu accusing us of having ‘monster-gods’!? Who worships the six-armed dominatrix and the elephant-headed belly-dancer? You’re the one with blue gods that eat cookies!”

But let’s hold onto this for a moment, because I think the monster-god of materialism spawned a robber-baron-messiah and sixty million American Christians dumped old gentle Jesus to worship him (now, strictly from a business perspective, as a contractor assigned to destroy the world, Jesus has been chronically late – maybe the new Platinum Christ can get the demolition done faster. With the full thrust of his earth-shaking tweets). We’ve had our doubts about Jesus – bearded Palestinian, you say you’re from Nazareth but you were born in Bethlehem and then traveled to Egypt and back? Show me the birth certificate. What a strange thing to celebrate Christmas 2016 when the USA has just changed its motto to: “There’s no room at the inn.”

Gandhi warns that no nation can have America’s material wealth without groaning under the heel of this monster-god (and India, like many other “developing” nations, has since learned that American-style wealth for a few must come with American-style pitiless poverty for the many).

Maybe this is going too far, letting a Hindu from India describe America’s god, so let’s turn to another famous Indian…American Indian…man, that’s so confusing. One native author notes, at least Columbus wasn’t sailing around looking for Turkey. Anyway, the legendary Chief Seattle observed, “Your God loves your people and hates mine… The white man’s God cannot love his red children or he would protect them… Your God seems to us to be partial…your religion was written on tables of stone by the iron finger of an angry God.” Is the white man’s god an angry judge? I guess we can’t necessarily count on a Native American to be unbiased on the subject, so let’s just pick an American at random. And to prove how random, we’ll choose an American whose last name means “unknown.” Malcolm X. He said, “This is who she means when she says ‘In God We Trust’ – that blue-eyed god, that blonde-haired god, that pale-skinned god who blessed them to kidnap you and me and bring us here and make us slaves.”

AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION

In 1967, Robert Bellah, wrote a groundbreaking study proposing that “while some have argued that Christianity is the national faith…few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.”

Is Americanism a religion? I don’t know. As a Religious Studies teacher I always start and end the semester by telling my students I don’t know what “religion” is – I can’t really define it, I just know it when I smell it (and most of them smell old. Although ironically it’s the earliest religions, the primal tribal ones, that still smell fresh. Anyway…). Does Americanism have the stuff that other religions have? If you stripped out all the Christian stuff, the Christmas decorations and Easter goodies and trick-or-treat, which are all actually pagan traditions… Does Americanism have temples, myths, rituals, scriptures, hymns, holidays?

Aside from Christianity America still has plenty of holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July. Some that center around bonding the community through animal sacrifice – the 4th of July pig and Thanksgiving Turkey who die for our sins. Once every four years we celebrate Inauguration Day – the root word “Augur” meaning to divine the future by conjuring spirits, generally by touching something that belonged to a dead person. You may have noticed – in American Civil Religion, in court-houses and presidential inaugurations, people put their hand on the Bible but that’s got nothing to do with reading it or knowing what’s inside. The Bible is strictly there as a fetish, an idol, a devotional object, touched to make a connection with the dead.

The Bible is not the sacred scripture of Americanism (some people want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but American Law only prosecutes three of them). But we do have ancient cryptic writings, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Starr Report. We have hymns, the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” “Friends in Low Places.” Goodness knows Americanism has a debatable creation-story and loads of mythology – George Washington is so mythical that I don’t even know if he technically existed. Americanism has martyrs, Lincoln, King, Kennedy and scores of fallen soldiers who die for our sins (or get stuck in long lines at the Veterans’ Hospital for our sins).

American Civil Religion has Temples, the Greek Temples of Zeus-Abraham-Lincoln and Apollo-Thomas-Jefferson in the Capital, the Egyptian Obelisk Washington Monument. America has a totem animal – Benjamin Franklin suggested the generous turkey, but the idea was shot down in favor of the predatory Eagle, which was promptly hunted to near-extinction.

The great Robert Bellah did a much better job of explaining this than I just did – he had years of research, I just said a bunch of stuff that popped into my head. But his point, that Americanism is a religion on its own, distinct from Chrsitianity, with its own myths, totems and rituals, remains a fascinating avenue of thought (and yes, I admit I’ve done some drunk driving on that intellectual avenue). But if Americanism is a relgion apart from Christianity…then who is the god of American Civil Religion?

IN WHAT GOD?

Should there be prayer in public schools? A contentious issue in America today. And yet when I hear about it, I can’t help thinking, “but there’s already prayer in schools – the pledge of allegiance, which requires American children to worship a totem.” My children break three of the Ten Commandments every morning while saying the pledge to the flag – worshiping other gods, worshiping an idol, and taking the Lord’s name in vain. If they mindlessly recite the pledge without knowing what it means? Then they’re also bearring false witness. And if they knew that I object to children saying the pledge? They’d be dishonoring their father too – half of the Ten Commandments broken before ten in the morning! What a start for the day. I’m surprrised they haven’t murdered someone by noon.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first drafted by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It did not mention “God” but still it was controversial because it allowed girls, blacks and immigrants to say “my flag” (this was later fixed) and “liberty and justice for all” – Bellamy’s Socialism rearing its ugly head at the end, and stangely enough this still remains. Then, ironically, it was Cold-War anti-Communism that got god into the pledge. In 1954, president Eisenhower declared, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Eisenhower explains that the words “under god” were inserted to “strengthen…spiritual weapons” – religion was added to weaponize the pledge of allegiance (later it was Eisenhower who warned against the spiritual influence of the Military Industrial Complex…but he did not foresee the Spiritual Industrial Complex with its creeping militaristic influence). “One Nation Under God” was a weapon against the heahten Communists with their dangerous, heretical “Do Unto Others” and “Give to the Poor” mentality. The pledge still affirms with a sneaky stridency that only “One Nation” is “Under God.”

But what god is this? Perhaps the answer is on our dollar bill, right between the Egyptian Pyarmid and the Roman Eagle (notably absent is the Christian cross). The Yankee dollar used to be a check representing ownership of a certain amount of America’s hoarde of gold. But then the dollar was switched from the gold-standard to the god-standard, its value now is determined only by how much China believes that god loves America. When China believes god loves America best, the dollar is up, when China believes that god is cooling on America the dollar goes down. Not only is the dollar-value totally mythological, but we don’t even get to determine the value of the myth. Still we desperately trust god to love America best, because without that the almightly dollar would be powerless.

In what God do we trust? Who is this god who holds our nation together? At last we must turn to the scriptures, the sacred documents. The Constitution is silent about god, but the Declaration of Independence contains four fascinating references, first to “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that support human independence. Then to the “Creator” who endows all men with certain inalienable rights. The third is a nod to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the last declares “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

We may hear the word “God” and affix all manner of colorful, kid-friendly ornamentation like “love” and “father” and “salvation” but none of these attributes are in the Declaration. In this document, god is the “Creator,” Provider, Protector and “Supreme Judge.” Bellah points out the irony that god in the Declaration is more like the legalistic Torah-God of Judaism than the loving savior-god of Christianity. This is the austere disciplinarian who endows “all men” with equality and rights, except for women, slaves, natives, etc – when the Declaration was penned, “all men” was only about one fifth of the population. This could be called the “One Fifth Compromise” – in which four fifths of Americans would not exist in the eyes of America’s god. And this has not dramatically changed.

George Michael, who passed away on Christmas day, once wrote a song called “Hand to Mouth” about Amerians driven to desperation by poverty, and one of them declares, “I believe in the gods of america. I believe in the land of the free. But no one told me that the gods believe in nothing. So with empty hands I pray. And from day to hopeless day, they still don’t see me.”

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GOOD? (A Sermon)

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GOOD? (A Sermon)

When Elizabeth and the kids and I moved into our neighborhood, there was a a short, squat house nearby, surrounded by trees. The house as been empty as long as we’ve been here, so we’ve considered those trees our neighbors. Trees make the best neighbors – they aren’t loud, and more importantly, they don’t complain about us being loud. And they never borrow your weed-whacker and bring it back broken, claiming it was broken to begin with.

In this last couple weeks, someone sent a big machine with a long arm and a claw…with a mechanical thumb…to demolish that old house. The machine played with the house, like a big cat toying with a wounded animal, or like a toddler playing with a stuffed animal. This machine shuffled down this house like it was made of playing-cards, then it started crunching – steel and glass, plaster and wood, brick and concrete and when we looked the next day, there was nothing where that old house used to be, just flattened dirt strewn with straw (presumably planted with grass seed). And I thought, “this is alright. That old abandoned house wasn’t doing any good for the neighborhood, now in a few months it’ll be a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. Instead of worrying about meth-heads using the house as a drug lab, we can worry about pot-heads using this forest glade for singalongs.”

It was nice, with that old abandoned house out of the way, to imagine that the land would belong to the trees again. When the people are away, the trees will play. They’ll just play reeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeelly slowly. “Man, I thought those people would never leave – I’m gonna grow an Afro, maybe branch out, see if I can get a little of that sunshine over there and watch my favorite soap-opera, ‘Chasing Tail,’ starring the neighborhood squirrels. We can sit up all night telling scary stories. This one’s called… ‘Leave it to Beaver…’” “Don’t tell them that, they’ll have nightmares and leak sap all over the place.” “Nah, it’ll put vines on their chest.”

Of course it wasn’t the trees that had bought the property – trees don’t sign contracts, they just stare at the paper and say “His name was…Spruce…and you cut him down in his prime…beat him to a pulp…flattened him out and stapled him.” A couple days after the house was demolished, the machine came back for the trees. It clutched them by the trunk and pulled them up, then tapped them on the ground to shake the dirt off the roots. Like the trees were cigars, it tapped them on the ground. And Elizabeth said, “If God made the trees in His image and likeness we’re in big trouble.” And I looked around nervously “This is Christian country. If they hear you say that they’re gonna cut you down and use you for firewood.”

God looking like a tree – the very idea is preposterous. The Bible proves that, not only in what it says, but also by what it is, paper, a bunch of ground-up wood. Surely if God had some special interest in trees, He wouldn’t allow such a massacre of them to produce copies of a book for us to read. And right there on the first page it clearly says: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Ah, it’s so reassuring, such a relief to hear those words – to feel like God’s special love for us is tied up in God’s love for Godself. “How can I stay mad at you, when you look so much like me?” We want God to look a nice bearded old man – like Santa Claus, except wearing white and He’s eaten less Christmas cookies. We want a God who will watch us all the time, keep a careful list of all the bad stuff we do, and then throw out the list and give us the goodies anyway. And most important, Santa may be watching us all the time (a little creepy? A fat old man spying on your kids when they’re sleeping and awake?) he’s got the supernatural surveillance but he’s always somewhere else – he’s far away where he can’t interfere. He’s got the CIA spy-gear and the jackboots but he never comes kicking in your door to put a black bag over your head, he just slips in through the heating vents, plants the toys and goes back to base (I checked the toys last Christmas, by the way, they’re not manufactured in the North Pole anymore – apparently Santa Claus has moved his operation to Taiwan where the labor is cheaper, and his sleigh these days is called “Amazon Prime.” I should start calling my car that. “Amazon Prime.” I should call my wife that too. She’d love it).

MAMA

We have a powerful desire to humanize God – to make Him more like Santa Claus. We try to humanize nature too – “Mother Nature.” “Mommy nature, we’re sorry,” because we know mothers can’t resist empty apologies, our moms think we’re so cute. “We won’t do it again,” we already called, our friends are on their way over so we can do it again. That’s why we don’t say “Uncle Nature,” because when we make an environmental boo-boo we don’t want to hear “You ordered your bed, now sleep in it.” We want a Mommy to accept our hollow apologies and clean up our mess for us, “Oh, bless your heart, don’t worry, we’ll sweep it under this carpet called…the ocean.”

In Christianity it’s a sin to believe in “Mother Nature.” But if you just happen to have a statue of Mary in your garden, and your roses just happen to prosper? That’s innocent, right? I mean, what could be more innocent than an unwed teenaged mother?

We want nature to love us, and nature does love us – and not just for feeding the mosquitoes and hosting her beloved flu virus (“Thanks for the ride!” “Freeloading hippie, get a job, flu virus, you bum.”) but also for just being ourselves, adorable little rug-rats, critters, animals. Nature loves us, but nature doesn’t love us best. She gives us the same rules as every other species – “I want you to have friends, but keep the party small and don’t make a mess of the place.” Because when we let our population boom out of control she’ll send us to bed without supper, and if we trash nature’s house she’ll clean it up with tidal waves.

I love nature but I don’t really like nature. Nature is mouths and thorns and mosquitoes and animal crap on the ground when you’re walking and feel the sun on your face and your heart is beating and your problems seem inconsequential and… Aw! Aw man! Who left this here? Now all my problems seem insurmountable and I’ve gotta scrape this nature off my boots.

And nature communicates with us in feelings, instincts, mostly from our bellies and our swimsuit area. She doesn’t get it that we’re the nerds of the animal high school, we want our instructions clear. How do I pass this test? Couldn’t you put it in writing? And so we cling to our religions, which give us study guides for the final exam – a syllabus. For example, the Bible is divided into two Testaments – “Testament” meaning contract. And right there at that start of the first contract, God creates the world in a certain way, and begins telling people about how they should interact with it.

THE STORY

According to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God dictated the formation of skies and land in six days. A seventeenth century bishop used Biblical chronological data to calculate that this process began on October 23rd, 4004 years before the common era. The land was flat and the sky was a hard, solid dome on top of it – if you can imagine one of those plastic bubbles that gumball machine toys come in, that’s the world that gets created in Genesis One. And the sun and moon chased each other around inside this bubble, and God made plants and animals and sea-monsters and birds and then little figurines of Godself. Once these little figurines, people, are in place, the whole structure can finally pass inspection, “Very Good,” and then God subcontracted human beings to oversee the whole business.

In the last few centuries, preachers and scientists have been playing tug-of-war over the logistics of this story, and we’ve generally come to agree that the world is more than six thousand years old, it’s round (we’ve all seen the photographs) and probably revolves around the sun. But there are other elements of this story that our culture has a harder time letting go of. The story tells us that Creation was complete when humanity appeared. It tells us that the human being is the final, the ultimate creature. The finished product. Well of course we are! History begins with us, everything before humanity was just prologue of bumbling bacteria and dimwitted dinosaurs, and history will end with us, if humanity ends there will be nothing but cockroaches picking at our trash. “Hey Keef, we’ve struck gold! A Twinkie, we’re set for life!” The world was made for humanity. Many of us here are not Biblical literalists, and yet many of us here still believe that the human race is the culmination of creation, and that when we’re finished the story is over forever.

We do love to debate about who made humanity – was humanity made by God, all at once? Or was humanity made by the world, gradually formed and refined by evolution and natural selection? Did Adam and Eve have furry tails and swing from trees? But our cultural debate about natural selection has nothing to do with monkeys. I mean, sure, it might be embarrassing to say you’re related to primates who play with their own feces, but anybody who’s ever raised a toddler can come to terms with that. The hardest thing about accepting natural selection is letting go of Supernatural selection – a promise from God that we as humans are exempt from the laws and limits that govern the survival of every other species. We are taught to believe that humanity is “too big to fail,” and that if we as a species crash, God will bail us out. And if we let go of that, our cherished cultural belief in a manifest destiny of expansion and renovation will be exposed as a reckless binge, an intoxicated rampage fueled by delusions of indestructibility.

In Genesis 1:28, God is reported to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Our culture is built on dominion over the earth, changing the land to suit our needs. And eliminating any creature that gets in our way. We might debate about whether or not it’s America’s God-given responsibility to police all the nations of the earth, but few of us would debate whether or not it’s humanity’s God-given responsibility to police all the species of the earth. Mark Twain observed, “We hunt the fly remorselessly; also the flea, the rat, the snake, the disease germ and a thousand other creatures which [God] pronounced good, and was satisfied with, and which we loudly praise and approve – with our mouths – and then harry and chase and malignantly destroy, by wholesale.”

As we debate the mechanics of the Genesis creation story, we can forget to look at the message of the creation story – God said each part of creation was good. Before people started messing with it. Maybe the story is telling us – before we charge in to filling, subduing and dominating, we should always take a look at creation and consider: “God said this was ‘Good’ as it is – are we really going to make it better?” Because many of our big box stores and parking lots are not an improvement (and all this bulk-buying and driving isn’t doing our figures any favors either). Civilization did not begin with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Hey! We’ve got a great idea! Let’s destroy the earth!” No – it began with some group of people ten thousand years ago saying “Let’s perfect the earth!” For ten thousand years, groups of people have been trying to perfect their environment, not to wreck it but to make it better. To make it easier to provide for themselves and their children.

Decades ago, I don’t know how many, someone stepped onto a plot of land in my neighborhood and said “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll clear a few of these trees, and build a small, humble house here.” And months ago, someone else stepped onto that plot of land and said, “I know what will make this perfect. We’ll knock down this old house, clear some more of these trees and…” How they intend to improve the neighborhood remains to be seen, but I’m told that they’re going to build a parking garage. That’s our modern idea of perfection – easy parking.

An eighteenth century French exile who called himself Voltaire composed a short novel called Candide, about a young man’s quest to make some sense of life. The search for meaning drags poor Candide like a rag-doll across the planet, making him witness and victim to countless atrocities born of nationalistic and religious fanaticism. By the end of the story, Candide has no illusions about countries or creeds, and when someone attempts to draw him into a philosophical discussion about life’s meaning, Candide calmly says, “We must tend the garden.”

We live in a time religious and political fanaticism, ideologies clash like clanging cymbals drowning out the noise of destruction around us as our culture attempts to perfect the world by turning it into a parking lot. And in all this noise we can easily miss that calm voice: “We must tend to the garden.” The garden needs our help, it’s true, but we must also let the garden tend to itself, because it is good. And when we acknowledge that the garden is good, we can stop trying to perfect it and let the garden tend to us.

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Sacrifice -or- The Gods Order Hamburgers

SACRIFICE -or- THE GODS ORDER HAMBURGERS

Table Burn

Above a shop window on Elmwood Avenue hangs a large picture of Muhatma Gandhi with his version of the Seven Deadly Sins: “Wealth without work. Pleasure without conscience. Science without humanity. Knowledge without character. Politics without principle. Commerce without morality. Worship without sacrifice.” Now before we all run off to the tattoo parlor, let’s take a moment to ponder the last one, “worship without sacrifice.” It sounds a little strange – sacrifice seems kind of…un-Gandhi-ish…but perhaps in our unspoken agreement to make him an honorary Christian, we can forget that while he deeply respected Jesus, Muhatma Gandhi was happily a Hindu.

As a teacher I find that sacrifice is a real blind spot as we modern Americans, with our mix of enlightenment and entitlement, enter into a study of religion. We might even lazily use animal/human sacrifice as a line of distinction between primitive and perfected religions – the only religion that still sacrifices animals in modern America is Santeria, which many of us have never even heard of. “The gods demand sacrifice!” shouts a Mayan-inspired priest in The Road to El Dorado, and those early agricultural religions are filled with it – the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians, Aztecs, Incas and Mayans, even the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Vikings. From the very dawn of agriculture and Civilization, there was a Sumerian belief that the gods needed hamburgers, and had created mortals for the sole purpose of preparing them. That may sound idiotic. But every modern religion of Salvation begins with sacrifice, and they all retain it in some revised form.

“Sacrifice” literally means to make something sacred, and “Sacred” literally means pertaining to the realm of spirits and/or gods. So sacrifice means to transfer something from the physical realm to the spiritual realm, and this is usually accomplished by destroying it or by communally consuming it. The Christian Bible is divided into two Testaments, “Testament” coming from a Greek word meaning a promise you make while holding your testicles to demonstrate your willingness to sacrifice them if your words are proven false. I’m not making this up. Greek translators used the word “Testament” as an approximation of the Hebrew word for “Covenant,” which means an agreement sealed by cutting and sharing an animal.

In the first book of the Bible, Abel sacrifices a lamb, then Cain sacrifices Abel, and Noah who saved all those endangered animals lands the ark and sacrifices a bunch of them. Abraham’s treaty with God is formalized by the cutting of several animals, and we witness countless other sacrificial contracts carved throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is not until Abraham offers a giant cheeseburger that God grants his wish of a son, and then God considers eating the son too. We might think that this was the first call for child sacrifice but the Bible does not say so, and Abraham’s unquestioning compliance implies that it was nothing out of the ordinary. The Law set forth in the Torah contains numerous classifications of sacrifice, some of which are eaten by the defendant, the priest and God, and some of which are entirely burned to be eaten by God alone. The book of Leviticus specifies that all animal sacrifice must be conducted in the Jerusalem Temple, and so after its destruction in 70 CE animal sacrifice was replaced with an equivalent monetary offering that is still practiced in Judaism. But the Pesach/Passover Seder still requires the meat of a lamb, which must be ritualistically slaughtered by a Kosher butcher.

In Christianity, the “New Covenant” is a contractual renegotiation sealed with the blood of the Christ, often symbolized as a sacrificial lamb. And he is ritually eaten in reenactments of his last supper – depending on which Christian tradition one belongs to, portions of the Christ might be eaten once a year or several times a day. Jesus himself said that anyone who wants to follow him must be willing to take up the cross and submit themselves as a sacrifice, and we can see various responses to this call in traditions of Christian martyrdom and monasticism, even in the rallying call for the Crusades. Or we might just throw two bucks into a passing plate on a Sunday morning and call it even (many Christians today believe that God is on a strict heart-healthy diet of love, songs and prayers).

A tiny minority of Muslims believe in sacrificing one’s life to harm others. This stems from a strained interpretation of certain Qur’anic passages, but the Qur’an is manifestly clear on requiring every Muslim to make the Hajj pilgrimage and slaughter an animal there to be shared among the needy in Mecca (in modern times, these animals are butchered and packed to be shipped to charities around the world). In contrast to other sacrificial traditions, the Qur’an states that God does not eat a portion of the sacrificial meat.

In an ancient Veda of Hinduism, the world was created through the sacrifice and dismemberment of the original man – a supposition the Hindus share with their estranged cousins the Babylonians and Vikings. And who can forget the image of the indigo goddess Kali in her skirt of severed arms and necklace of human skulls, arousing dead Shiva back to life by gymnastic lap-dance? She wasn’t just made up for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hinduism still retains the tradition of leaving plates of food in front of devotional figurines called Murtis. Even Buddhism, which has no gods, demands a sacrifice – the sacrifice of the eternal Self which in Hinduism would play chutes-and-ladders in eons of reincarnations. Siddhartha became the Buddha by giving up Siddhartha.

In the religion of American Nationalism we readily call war casualties a “sacrifice” for our culture, and apply the concept of “martyrdom” to murdered reformers. In modern times, many men and women will choose to “sacrifice” their prime reproductive years on the altar of career advancement, while others will “sacrifice” their career goals to raise children. Our forms of child sacrifice (signing our sons up for junior varsity football, sending our virgin daughters to college) and animal sacrifice (the Thanksgiving turkey that dies for our founding fathers’ sins, the cattle and pigs we barbecue on Independence Day) are more abstract but still recognizable.

Some of us in modern times may think of sacrifice as primitive and wasteful, and yet we can still see it, though abstracted, in modern traditions. When I think of organized religion’s current crisis – many people feeling like religion has no real connection to their life – I have to wonder if it has something to do with modern religions’ denial of their sacrificial roots. Free-market competition between American Christian denominations seems to have turned “salvation” into some sort of door- prize freebee, and so it’s no surprise if “salvation” doesn’t seem that valuable. Maybe “worship without sacrifice” is not such a great thing after all.

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Kingdom Come: Jesus and the Environment

Bathroom Sink Cross

Last week, Interfaith Action and the United Religions Initiative in Hendersonville NC presented an interfaith panel discussion about religion and environmentalism.  There was a Rabbi, a Muslim, a Wiccan Priestess, and I spoke about Christianity.  The main question was – what do our faith traditions tell us about how people are meant to live in relation to the rest of the community of life on earth?  Writing about Christianity and environmentalism proved to be too daunting and depressing, so I wrote about Jesus instead.

 

KINGDOM COME

 

In Genesis 1:28, God writes humanity a blank check from the bank of creation “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Is this how Christians are meant to live in relation to the environment? What would Jesus do? As far as we know, Jesus was not fruitful, he didn’t increase a number of little Jesus Juniors, he didn’t own land, he didn’t build a plantation, and though he may have called himself a “Good Shepherd,” he doesn’t have any sheep during his ministry, so if he was a literal shepherd he must have been a bad one. More likely it was a metaphor. Jesus called farmers, fishermen and herders to quit their day-jobs and become a small tribe of nomadic foragers.

Jesus never says that God wants us to “rule the earth and subdue it” – actually he says the exact opposite: “Our father…your will be done on earth.” Instead of God telling humanity to tear the world apart and put it back together for our own comfort and convenience, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that humanity would give that dominion back. Instead of looking at nature and saying “What a mess, how can we make this better?” We’re supposed to ask “What was God’s intention here, and how can we cooperate? How can we fit in?”

Well that’s a really tough one, since Jesus our teacher hasn’t left any instructions for two thousand years. And his proteges, the disciples, could never understand him. But if we listen carefully, we find that Jesus did recommend teachers we can still listen to: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them… Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these… And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:24-31)

Jesus wasn’t telling us to rule the birds, he was telling us to learn from them. He wasn’t telling us to have lawns three quarters of an inch high in suburbia, he was telling us that we can learn from the plants. And most important, he wasn’t telling us to destroy this planet in a desperate grab for food, water and clothing – he was saying that when we look at God’s creation and agree that it’s good, and look for how humanity can fit in, we’ll have these things! And we don’t have to wait until after death – he says that when we cooperate with creation, we’ll have what we need to survive.

Of course many of us here don’t speak Raven – it’s not that hard actually, the word “caw” is like Shalom or Aloha, it means “hello, let’s eat, goodbye, whatever.” But if we really can’t learn from the birds and plants, Jesus recommended other teachers: In Mark 10:14 he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Children will surprise you with their clarity of vision – this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we spend billions of dollars and hours teaching them shades of gray, teaching them that the world is more complicated than it looks. That they need to work hard, get stuff, pay bills, drive a car. I know my children would be much happier if their teachers were deer and bears and their classroom was a forest. Well that’s what education was, until people started this mutiny for world-dominion. Maybe someday instead of giving our children sit-still pills to crush their instinct for an eight-hour school-day, maybe someday we’ll give them God’s Kingdom instead, and let them teach us that the world is simple when we cooperate – it’s impossible we try to dominate.

Nature hates a makeover – reshaping this world is like the struggle to get a squirming toddler into church-clothes on Sunday morning, and yet we feel it’s our sacred responsibility to drag this world kicking and screaming into one of our utopian fantasies. Christian doctrine says not to get involved, to be “in the world but not of the world,” whatever that means. But when a crime is committed in plain sight, there’s no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

John 3:16, maybe the most famous passage in the New Testament – mostly because of a belief that if you write this magic spell on a sign and hold it at a sporting event, it’s guaranteed your team will crush their enemies. I’m not going to recite the whole verse, but those first six words: “For God so loved the world.” Maybe it’s time we stopped destroying God’s world, maybe it’s time we stopped hating God’s world and waiting for a divine evacuation, maybe it’s time we forgive God’s world for being so savage and primitive and childish and “earthy.” God so loved the world – it is not a sin for Christians to love it too.

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Mothers of Moses in the Bible and Qur’an

Mothers of Moses

There’s an expression, ‘Behind every great man there is a great woman,’ and no-one aught to know it better than Moses. He grows grow up to be the most willful and powerful man in the Hebrew Bible, he will challenge Pharaoh and even argue with God, but before he can even crawl, Moses’ life must be saved by five great women. The book of Exodus begins with Pharaoh’s decree to kill every boy born to the Hebrews, subverted by two Hebrew midwives. (Exodus 2:15-22) Moses’s mother Jochebed hides her baby in a box on the riverbank, and his older sister keeps watch over it. (Exodus 2:1-4) Then Pharaoh’s daughter finds the child and spares his life. (Exodus 2:5-10) In all this adventure Moses is just a bundle of contraband to be smuggled, intercepted and confiscated.

The Biblical story of baby Moses being saved by these five women is mostly told in dialogue: Pharaoh interrogating the midwives and Miriam negotiating with Pharaoh’s daughter. It’s perplexing to find that the only woman whose voice we do not hear in this narrative is the mother herself. Of all these women, she takes the greatest risk and has the most to lose, but we never get a sense of what she’s thinking and feeling. This presents a fantastic opportunity for Rabbinic legends to supply us with a glimpse of her inner struggle, but the Midrash focuses instead on Moses’ father debating with Miriam about whether or not Hebrews should bother to have children at all, or even get married (Miriam prevails, and Hebrew marriage continues). In the Qur’an, she is the central figure, and the whole story of Moses’ birth is a series of interactions between the mother and God.

 

28:7 And We revealed to Moses’ mother, saying: ‘Let him nurse, then when you fear for him, cast him into the river and fear not, nor grieve. Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.’
28:8 So Pharaoh’s people took him up, though he would prove an enemy and a grief for them. Surely Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were wrongdoers.
28:9 And Pharaoh’s wife said: ‘Here is a joy for me and you – do not kill him, maybe he will be useful to us, or we may adopt him as a son.’ They did not perceive.
28:10 And the heart of Moses’ mother was heavy with loss. She would have revealed the secret had We not strengthened her heart, so that she might be of the believers.
28:11 And she said to his sister: ‘Follow him up.’ So she watched him from a distance, while they were not aware.
28:12 And We did not allow him to nurse, so his sister approached and said: ‘Shall I point out to you the people of a house who will bring him up for you, and they will wish him well?’
28:13 So We gave him back to his mother that she would be comforted and not grieved, and that she might know that the promise of God is true.

 

Her story unfolds in three acts: God promises to rescue the baby, but in order for this to happen she must put her faith to the test, abandoning her helpless child to the waters. When the child is found by enemies she nearly reveals his identity, but God gives her the strength to see the test through to the end. Then God prevents the baby from nursing from Egyptian women, so that a Hebrew must be found and Moses is returned to his mother again, now under the protection of both God and Pharaoh (though Pharaoh does not yet know of God’s plan to drown him. Nobody’s making a sitcom about God and Pharaoh raising a child together, it wouldn’t have many episodes).

In the Bible it is Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts Moses, and then it is Pharaoh’s successor who Moses will challenge to let the Hebrews go. The Qur’an offers a simpler scenario in which there is only one Pharaoh whose wife requests that they adopt the child. Her suggestion, “maybe he will be useful to us, or we may adopt him as a son,” (Sura 28:9) reprises the words used by Potiphar’s wife when they acquired Joseph in Sura 12:21. As the adoption of Joseph signaled the Hebrews’ entry into Egypt, the adoption of Moses signals their exodus, where God adopts a “mixed multitude” and leads them to freedom. The explanation for how Moses is returned to his mother for nursing comes from the Babylonian Talmud, “Moses had already been taken around to ever so many Egyptian women to nurse him, but he rejected them all, for the Holy One said: Shall the mouth that will speak to Me suck anything unclean?” The Rabbis told this story to protect Moses from any charge of having indirectly broken kosher laws, but the emphasis in the Qur’an is on verifying God’s promise, “Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.” (Sura 28:7)

The Qur’an magnifies not only Moses’ biological mother, but also his adoptive mother, who is presented as a model of faith and bravery: “God sets forth an example for those who believe – the wife of Pharaoh, when she said: ‘My Lord, build for me a house with You in the Garden and deliver me from Pharaoh and his work, and deliver me from these iniquitous people.’” (Sura 66:11) In the Bible we never find out what becomes of her, leaving us to infer that she suffered the same wrath God poured out on the other Egyptians*. In the Qur’an, she puts her trust in God and is rescued from the punishment. Whereas the Bible in its final form will carefully account for the Israelite lineage of every Exodus refugee, the Qur’an reports the rescue of certain Egyptian converts. As in the Qur’anic stories of Noah and Abraham, God chooses survivors based on their submission, regardless of ethnicity.

Talmud and Midrash quotes from:
Bialik, H. N. and Y. H. Ravnitzky, ed. The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah
Ginzberg, Louis Legends of the Bible

*There is a Rabbinic Legend that “At the time of the child’s abandonment, God sent scorching heat to plague the Egyptians, and they all suffered with leprosy and smarting boils. Thermutis, the daughter of Pharaoh, sought relief from the burning pain in a bath in the waters of the Nile. But physical discomfort was not her only reason for leaving her father’s palace. She was determined to cleanse herself as well of the iniquity of the idol worship that prevailed there… For rescuing Moses and for her other pious deeds, she was permitted to enter Paradise alive.”

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Cain and Abel in the Bible, Qur’an and Talmud

Red Spot on Concrete

CAIN AND ABEL

(A Comparison of the Cain and Abel story in the Bible, Qur’an and Rabbinic Literature)

 

In modern times, as the sibling traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam continue to slug it out over any provocation, it’s easy to read a deep pessimism in the Cain and Abel story: as soon as two brothers existed, the fighting began – and over what? Why did Cain kill Abel? Was it just an outward expression of an inborn human nastiness? Jealousy, greed, pride? Some hazy, ill-defined “Original Sin?” Our investigation into this first murder must begin with the motive, and to discern it we’ll need to pay close attention to what makes these neighbors different.

 

GENESIS 4:2 Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,
4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell…
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

 

The Biblical account of Cain and Abel is told in bullet points, leaving us to read between the lines for the answer to the question: why did God accept the offering of one and not the other? We read in Genesis 4:2, Abel was a “keeper,” someone who gathered and guarded God’s creatures while Cain was a “tiller,” someone who manipulated God’s land for his own purposes (the “fruit of the ground” here is grain, not the “fruit of the trees” mentioned in Genesis 3:2, 3:3 and 3:12). The shepherd is a protector of creation while the farmer is a hijacker. And God acknowledged the shepherd’s maintenance with abundance, while God punished the farmer’s mutiny with drought.

 

Though the Qur’an does not name the livelihoods of the brothers, it contains a warning against humans attempting to control the land’s output of grain and fruit: “When the earth puts on its golden clothing and ornaments, and its people think that they are masters of it, Our command comes to it, by night or by day, so We reduce it to stubble, as though it had not flourished yesterday.” (Surah 10:24)

 

Sura 5:27 And relate to them with truth the story of the two sons of Adam, when they offered an offering, but it was accepted from one of them and was not accepted from the other. He said: “I will certainly kill you.” The other said: “God accepts only from the dutiful.
5:28 If you stretch out your hand against me to kill me I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you. Surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds:
5:29 I would rather that you should bear my sins as well as yours, and be an inhabitant of the Fire; that is the reward of the unjust.”
5:30 At length his mind made it easy for him to kill his brother, so he killed him. Thus he became one of the losers.

 

Abel is silent in the Bible, but here he is presented as a prophet whose offering is a fulfillment of duty toward God. Abel’s proclamation that “God accepts only from the dutiful” (5:27) implies that Cain sacrificed for selfish reasons, so that God would multiply Cain’s own gain. Abel responds calmly to Cain’s murderous rage: as a prophet he refuses to answer violence with violence, and if martyred, Abel will be cleansed of his transgressions. Like all other prophetic stories in the Qur’an, this narrative focuses on a choice. Cooperating with his neighbor would give Cain the chance to learn Abel’s way of pleasing God. But Cain is fixated on competition for the goods of this world, and it will cost him his place in the restored Eden of the world to come.

 

Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

 

In the Biblical account of Eden, God wanders in and out of the story and then has to ask what’s happened in His absence: When Adam and Eve hide after eating the fruit, God has to ask where they are, (Genesis 3:8) how they got the idea they were naked and whether or not they’d eaten from the tree, (Genesis 3:11) and later where Abel is. (Genesis 4:9) Some commentators would say God is just playing with them, and yes, as a father of small children I frequently ask where they’re hiding while I can clearly see the wiggling giggling lumps under a blanket. But in terms of the Eden story, it seems more plausible that the original tellers did not imagine God as omnipresent (everywhere at once) or omnipotent (all knowing) – if God in the story was all-powerful and all-knowing, there would be no story at all. In the Qur’an, neither Cain’s crime nor Abel’s body is hidden from God.

 

Sura 5:31 Then God sent a crow scratching the ground to show him how to cover the dead body of his brother. He said: “Woe is me! Am I not able to be as this crow and cover the dead body of my brother?” So he became of those who regret.
5:32 For this reason We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a person, unless it be for murder or for corruption in the land, it is as though he had killed all men. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.

 

Modeling burial after the crow resembles a Rabbinic legend recorded by Rabbi Eliezer: “Adam and his mate came and sat by the corpse, weeping and mourning for him – but they did not know what to do with Abel’s body. A raven whose companion had just died said: I will teach Adam what to do. The raven took his dead companion, dug the earth before the eyes of Adam and his mate, and buried him in it. Adam said: We will do as the raven.” In the Qur’an, Adam’s ability to conduct the first burial is replaced with Cain’s inability to accomplish it. Cain killed his brother in the hope of gaining a greater share of the earth’s abundance, but the attempted burial shows that the land has been turned against him.

 

The Qur’anic expansion on what it means to be a brother’s keeper was also expressed in the Talmud, “Man was first created a single individual to teach the lesson that whoever destroys one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves one life, Scripture ascribes it to him as through he had saved a whole world.”

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